Cake gate and the recipe for good crisis comms

So, there is another ‘cake gate’ crisis.

And this one doesn’t involve a Prime Minister and lockdown restrictions.

Instead, former Coronation Street actress Catherine Tyldesley has found herself at the centre of a viral scandal, numerous damaging headlines and unwanted press attention over what has been dubbed ‘cake-gate’.

And, as providers of crisis communication training, we think there are lessons others can learn from the story.

 

The crisis, which finally seems to have taken some of the media focus away from the Coutts/Farage row, centres on a viral social media post.

An events company approached the Three Little Birds Bakery by email, asking them to provide cakes for a “well-known celebrity” - later identified as Ms Tyldesley.

It asked for a 40th birthday cake, 100 cupcakes and a smaller cake.

A sizeable, yet half-baked, order - the work would be paid for with exposure.

It said: “In return for being a supplier for the event, payment would be made in the form of promotion on their socials with over 700k followers, as well as promoted in OK Magazine.”

Rebecca Severs, the owner of the bakery, shared the request on social media, saying: “Unfortunately as my mortgage provider doesn't take payment ‘in the form of promotion on their socials’, and my staff can't feed their kids with exposure on Instagram, I'll have to decline your very generous offer.”

That response gained plenty of praise on social media. And, perhaps ironically, by not baking cakes, the bakery gained far more publicity than it would have achieved through the exposure payment.

But the story moved from praise for the bakery to criticism of the actress after the Daily Mail ‘unmasked’ her as the mystery celebrity.

Coronation Street star Catherine Tyldesley is unmasked as mystery celebrity in 'free 40th birthday cake' row Daily Mail

And Ms Tyldesley responded with an Instagram video.

“The abuse I have been receiving online is horrendous. So, hopefully, this will put an end to it,” she said.

And added: “Utterly bizarre, I don’t know what to say.”

“I mean, I hope the cake lady got the exposure she was craving, whilst I’ve got journalists knocking on my front door while my kids are playing in the front room.”

Crumbs.

Meanwhile, the events company involved in the story - NVRLND - claimed its email had been “completely misconstrued”.

It said: “We selected Three Little Birds Bakery to collaborate with a view to support a local business and help them grow.

“Our aim is to connect small local businesses with the opportunity of growth and the possibility of a full diary which is what we have experienced when working on past collaborations. We would never expect any business to be out of pocket and nor would our client.

“Our email communication to Three Little Birds has unfortunately been completely misconstrued.”

So, what can others learn from this?

Well, video updates are an increasingly used crisis media management tool. They offer speed and convenience, and they work well with social media.

And more CEOs are turning to them when their organisation is in the firing line.

But the content of those videos needs to be right.

Ms Tyldesley’s effort left her with something of a soggy bottom.

It feels dismissive and tone-deaf. The soap star appeared to try to paint herself as the victim in the story.

And she went on the attack, claiming that the bakery had been seeking exposure.

So, what should she have done?

Well, the recipe for a good crisis media management response starts with compassion.   

People need to know you care. Show concern for the bakery and get to it at the start.

“I know it is difficult for small businesses at the moment. I’ve always supported local and small businesses. But on this occasion, I got it wrong.”

That would be a much better way to start.

Then we need a healthy helping of action. What are you doing to resolve the crisis? What are you doing to make it better?

In this case, it could be that she has been in contact with the bakery and has placed a new order (that she will pay for with money).

In other crises, it could be that an investigation has been launched to establish what went wrong and how something similar can be prevented from happening again.

It might be you are reviewing your procedures or working with relevant authorities.

Outlining the action you are taking helps show you are treating the incident seriously.

Action needs to be mixed with a dollop of reassurance.

Try to put the incident into context and show that it is isolated (if it is). In this example, highlight some of the work you have done with local businesses.

If your crisis has been triggered by an accident, highlight the safety protocols you have in place and your previously good record.

An overlooked part of the crisis video mixture can be realism.

Those in front of the camera need to feel real. Miss Tyldesley arguably went too far the other way, at one point saying, “I don’t know what to say”. But videos that feel robotic and scripted don’t work well. Show some emotion. Show your authenticity. Put the crisis in your words.  

 

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And finally, avoid giving in to temptation. When you are in the firing line, and it feels like you are being criticised from all angles, it can be tempting to fight back.

But getting drawn into a tit-for-tat slanging match is not a good look. When the actress accused the bakery of ‘craving exposure’, Ms Severs hit back, sharing an AI-generated image of the “infamous cake request”.

Cake-gate is also a reminder that when you are perceived to have done something wrong, your past activities will be looked into for examples of similar incidents or behaviour.

The Daily Mirror reported on Saturday that Ms Tyldesley had received a haul of ‘perks and freebies’ worth up to £70,000 in the past year.  

And a 10-year-old tweet asking for ‘cheap’ cakes resurfaced.

"Can anyone recommend a good cake maker in Manchester?? Not too expensive," she posted at the time - there's always a Tweet (or whatever they are now known as under the X rebrand).

So, when you are always in the media spotlight, always consider what other potential negatives could be drawn into the story.

Can Ms Tyldesley rebuild her crumbling reputation? Probably. But she will need to do better than her video.

And it is unlikely to be a piece of cake.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our  crisis communication training courses.

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